For almost four years, Marjorie Rohrman figured it was the wrenching mystery no doctor could crack: how her husband could contract a quick-striking esophageal cancer normally associated with heavy smokers.

Then Aug. 4 rolled around and she learned that Lockheed Martin Corp. secretly had cut a $60 million settlement with more than 1,300 other Burbank residents who claimed toxic contamination from one of the company’s now-defunct aircraft plants damaged their health and property.

Suddenly the Rohrmans, who were not part of that accord, began wondering if those pollutants may have triggered George’s death in October 1992 at the age of 70. A Burbank resident for 50 years, he spent much of his time outdoors on a U.S postal route close to the old plant.

“The first thing the doctors asked was whether he smoked or drank, and he didn’t. They were baffled,” said Marjorie Rohrman, who now lives in Sylmar.

Company officials repeatedly have said that emissions from their former plant never posed a health risk to the surrounding neighborhood. In their settlement with 1,357 residents, first disclosed by the Daily News on Aug. 4, the company did not admit liability.

In the months since the out-of-court deal became public, many people like the Rohrmans have come forward with stories about illnesses and deaths that they believe could be linked to their proximity to the Lockheed site.

State officials say there is no evidence of unusually high cancer rates around the site to justify a comprehensive study.

Some public health officials, environmentalists and residents are urging the state to conduct such a study to determine whether illnesses in the area can be linked to company-generated pollution.

“The state has an obligation to deal with the issues,” said Phillip Harber, director of UCLA’s School of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “It needs to be taken seriously, and the state can provide an objective assessment. When there is a public health concern, there is a hazard in doing nothing.”

Gail Ruderman Feuer, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, agreed.

“Companies don’t typically pay out $60 million if they don’t think they have some responsibility for what happened in the community,” she said. “You have significant fears, if not hysteria, in the neighborhoods among people concerned they will get sick. It’s appropriate for the government to get involved.”

In a prepared statement, company spokeswoman Maureen Curow said Lockheed “would cooperate fully with a meaningful scientific study in Burbank and would be interested in seeing a proposal.”

Last week, California health officials said a study isn’t warranted because a cancer-incident survey of four census tracts ringing the Lockheed’s Burbank site, southeast of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport, found cancer rates no higher than expected.

“We’ve had no indication so far that such a study would be a benefit,” said Rick Kreutzer, chief of the department’s environmental health investigations branch. “The cancer registry has evaluated those concerns and they have indicated there isn’t an excess of cancers.”

The survey, performed by an epidemiologist at USC’s Cancer Surveillance Program, used county databases of reported cancers between 1972 and 1992. It found that there were no measurable excess cancers in the area.

“The cancer incidence rates in the Burbank area in question appear to be average base line rates expected in an older population and there is no evidence of any cancer excess,” said Dr. Wendy Cozen,  who conducted the survey.

Yolanda McGinnis, a resident of Burbank’s Valley Street since the 1950s, isn’t convinced by those numbers. She and her neighbors long have wondered about the origin of cancers suffered by her husband and half a dozen neighbors, she said.

“Wouldn’t you be afraid if your husband died of three types of cancer?” said McGinnis, who said she was treated for colon cancer herself two years ago.

At the heart of the toxic question is the cluster of buildings and sheds – all now razed – that made up Lockheed’s 103-acre plant known as B-1.

Used to assemble and develop commercial aircraft and classified Air Force projects, including the U-2 spy plane and F-117A stealth fighter, the plant bustled for six decades until it was shuttered in 1990.

Six years later, that facility became the focus of the settlement and three lawsuits that ensued among people left out of the deal.

In August, retired Justice John Trotter, who mediated the secret accord, confirmed that the company paid the highest settlements – up to $300,000 – to 80 people who were sick or who had relatives who died of cancer. Lockheed also set up a medical monitoring program that entitles some settlement recipients to checkups for cancer and other illnesses as well as a medical insurance policy.

Trotter declined comment for this story.

Alan Sigel, a Westwood lawyer who represents roughly 1,800 people who claim Lockheed’s contamination also damaged their health and homes, said he would welcome an independent health study.

“We’re getting about 100 calls a day, and of that 75 percent evidence some physical illness,” Sigel said. “They say, `My husband has a tumor in his lung, and he doesn’t smoke and there is no cancer in the family.’ We have constant complaints about nose bleeds. . . . If you lived in Burbank for 20 years, are married and have three kids, would you be alarmed? You bet.”

Six years ago, the state Department of Health Services  wrapped up a $500,000 study of cancer-causing dioxins, heavy metals and lead found near Rosamond, a small, high desert town in southern Kern County. The city, located a few miles south of nearly two dozen metal recycling businesses and toxic waste sites, had six times the cancer rate normally expected, but state officials concluded there was no clear link between the chemicals and the cancers.

Nevertheless, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state toxics officials ordered a major cleanup at the recycling and waste sites.

In the San Joaquin Valley, state experts in 1987 investigated homeowners’ fears that pesticides were responsible for 20 cancers in younger people. No link was ever established.

The Health Services Department is expected to release next month an epidemiological report on workers exposed to radioactive and toxic substances at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in the Simi Hills west of Chatsworth.

Rockwell International Corp.’s Rocketdyne Division operates the 2,600-acre facility where rocket engines are tested and where nearly four decades of research with nuclear reactors was carried out. A major cleanup of toxic solvents and low-level radioactive contamination has been under way at the site for more then seven years.

Dan Hirsch, who sits on a citizen panel overseeing the Rocketdyne study, said he believes there’s enough evidence to compel DHS to come to Burbank. In the Rocketdyne case, the state refused to study the issue until three influential area state Assembly members, including Panorama City Democrat Richard Katz, held a public hearing and pressured the department, he said.

“They had to be brought in kicking and screaming,” Hirsch said. “If it weren’t for the intervention by community groups, press coverage and pressure from elected officials, DHS would never have done the . . . worker epidemiological study. DHS has a reputation as a captured regulatory agency, captured by the industries they are supposed to be regulating.”, captured by the industries they are supposed to be regulating.”

Independent government commission charged by the legislature with setting and enforcing standards for specific industries in the private sector. The concept was invented by the U.S.

Kreutzer, the Health Department official, disputed that characterization, adding that it’s extremely rare for anyone, anywhere to prove an unassailable relationship between cancer and contaminants in a given area.

Experts say there has been only a single “cancer cluster” traced to chronic exposure to environmental contaminants: a Turkish village where a respiratory cancer epidemic flared because of erionite, an asbestos-like mineral.

“To find an apparent excess of cancer in a small area can sometimes be difficult to establish with certainty,” he said. “You don’t know if it’s a fluctuation in some sort of short period that if examined over a longer window might average out.”

Cozen, the USC epidemiologist who did the Burbank cancer survey, said a harbinger of a serious health problem in the city would be if numerous people in the same area contracted the same form of cancer. The survey didn’t uncover any such pattern.

“Each cancer is a different disease,” Cozen said. “If they had breast cancer or prostate cancer, then it’s not related to the environment.”

Experts say a full-blown epidemiological study of the area around the Lockheed plant could take five years.

The analysis would require an inventory of what toxics Lockheed used, the amounts pumped into the environment and the ways people were exposed, said Edward Faeder, a chemist and toxicologist who served as Lockheed’s environmental protection chief from 1988 to 1990.

Next, trained interviewers might be dispatched into the neighborhoods ringing the former plant to ask residents about their job activities, family medical history, whether they drank, smoked and other lifestyle questions, as well as if they showed symptoms associated with certain maladies, he said.

Once this and other studies were completed, a subgroup of those exposed might be given more in-depth scrutiny, likely with medical examinations, and compared with a similar group that wasn’t exposed. The results would then be fed into a computer and interpreted, he said.

Among the hazardous compounds generated by the Lockheed plant was hexavalent chromium, an established human carcinogen that has been linked with lung cancer in workers who breathed high levels of it, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

A 1989 health risk assessment that Lockheed made under a state toxics law concluded that airborne emissions of hexavalent chromium were responsible for 80 percent of the total cancer risk generated by that site.

A byproduct of chrome plating, stainless steel work and painting, the chromium compound can also trigger asthma attacks and allergic skin reactions, the study said. If swallowed, it can result in stomach problems, kidney and liver damage and even death.

In addition to airborne particles, underground wells that supply an estimated 600,000 people in Burbank, Glendale, La Crescenta and Los Angeles with water were closed or diluted with clean sources in 1979 after they registered toxic levels significantly above the threshold level.

Under federal Superfund toxics cleanup law, the aerospace firm was identified as the major source of the pollution and is expected to pay the bulk of the estimated $135 million cleanup.

The wells have been sealed, and the polluted water is being flushed through a treatment plant to remove the toxics.

Last year, however, test wells monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed hexavalent chromium levels above the maximum contaminant level, prompting officials to launch an ongoing investigation.

Two other toxic chemicals in the water and Lockheed-owned land are volatile organic compounds called trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). 

Harber, the UCLA doctor, cautioned that even a comprehensive community health study might not solve the central question: whether Lockheed’s activities directly caused people to become ill.

“If you showed lung cancer is twice what it is in an unexposed population, how do you know it’s caused by smoking or their exposure?” Harber said. “But it’s not a situation where one should throw up one’s hands and say it’s useless. We owe it to people to tell them what we know and don’t know.”

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